Sunday 29th March 2020

Daily Diary: How Quickly We All Get Overtaken By Events

The windy spring continues outdoors. The sun is shining but the air is cold. Last night the clocks went forward but doesn’t seem to matter much. Normally there is a sense of celebration. It features strongly in the news – summertime is here. But not today as a nation enters its seventh day in lockdown. We can go out to exercise or to go to buy essentials from the corner shop or pharmacy. Travelling further afield is strongly frowned upon. What seemed pro-active in choosing not to fly ten days ago, needing events to prompt me, or closing our club’s sites has been quickly overtaken by events.

One of the fascinations of history is being able to grasp how people become overtaken by events. How, all of a sudden, we come to be at war in 1914, or 1939. How paradigm shifts happen. How readily we come to accept authoritarian changes, like the police fining us for not observing the self-isolation rules. Things only a fortnight ago that would have been seen as undesirable, even deplorable, enter the realm of acceptability as we come to realise how fragile our bubble of western comfort truly is. I always suspected that democracy was a luxury that comes with being in a wealthy state. Now it’s pretty plain to see that that’s the case.

The first rain for days comes down. The outside world on the first day of British summertime has a forbidding air about it.

It turns to hail just as I’m unblocking the kitchen’s outside drain.

I get peppered by it.

The Bigger Picture: The Especially Vulnerable Migrant

It’s been a few years now since I re-entered the fold of former ex-pupils of the Duke of York’s Royal Military School, where I spent most of my teenage years. Not fully. I get hugely uncomfortable at large gatherings and I avoid formal reunions like the plague, but pre-covid informal get-togethers of a dozen or so and the occasional engagement with an email forum bring their own rewards.

Like this great email from a real old timer from the days when Dukies had been evacuated from their school premises in the shadow of a number of Luftwaffe targets around the port of Dover and relocated in the beach resort of Saunton in Devon.

“Me, 90 in Sept! At present apart from having a nose procedure, wearing a great big dressing, doing OK. Not a complete lockdown as I can still visit supermarkets, and most importantly booze outlets. Most of small businesses closed down. Am in the process of turning garage into home gym. Better still, plenty of rain after long hot summer. No ANZAC Parade this year. I usually march with ANZAC Vietnam vets. No Malaya vets in this area. No ex-Dukies either. Cheers Jim – p.s, I was not exactly the best maths/science student at Saunton.”

It got me thinking about the diaspora of so many of my schoolmates to all over the globe. I’d go as far as to say that with so many of us coming from well-travelled army families it doesn’t seem odd at all.

So it takes a particular kind of special exceptionalism to think that there’s nothing wrong about Brits travelling far and wide. You might even extend that to most of the developed world. But somehow it’s not right for others to do the same thing. To follow their fortune, to escape persecution or to set up a new life for all the reasons people set up new lives.

But there are challenges to overcome when travelling, and certainly when relocating, and the more socially disadvantaged you are the greater those challenges become and as the novel coronavirus spreads, it’s the least advantaged, such as refugees, who are being left out in the cold.

It’s a tough journey. Tough beyond our wildest imaginings. Surrounded by unsympathetic indigenous locals and regional administrations at every step along the way. Haunted by fear, both within and without, the latter often expressed as hostility and xenophobia. It’s nothing new. If you’re in New York, do make a point of visiting Ellis Island’s Museum of Immigration, which holds testimony to the movement of people into America from the days of the first European settlers to recent times.

You can’t escape what it’s like to be on the move to somewhere you believe to be better than where you are at the moment.

There, but for the grace of God…..

Driven on by hope of a better future in a better place. Some sell body organs to pay for the rest of their passage. Others, some of whom describe themselves as slaves, become caught up in forced labour by unscrupulous criminals along the way. What little help there has been, such as humanitarian operations are being suspended by UN agencies and NGOs, disrupted by Covid-19.

Losing critical documents along the way becomes easy, often to the traffickers who claim to be helping them. It makes the better future in a better place all the more difficult. With the British government’s current hostile approach to undocumented migrants, the pandemic poses a particular danger to victims of modern slavery. They face the direst consequences of a faltering economy, being ‘last in line’ to benefit from anything. As for sickness – for many the only option is to suffer stoically, fearing that if they seek medical attention they’ll be deported.

It’s neither good for them nor for the whole of society.

There’s a hypocrisy too. Governments that claim their hostility to migrants is in their interests – not to be trafficked, exploited and abused – turn out to be turning a blind eye to PPE items such as nitrile gloves being manufactured by forced labour in Malaysia and other parts of South East Asia. The US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) even went so far as to lift its ban on imports of such gloves on the basis that, magically, labour conditions had changed. They hadn’t.

 It’s all part of a growing awareness that’s being exposed by the coronavirus that there are deep inequalities in society. The first NHS consultant, Amged El-Hawrani to die from Covid-19 passes away at Leicester Royal Infirmary. Medics that follow are disproportionately from the BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnicity) community.

At first, it’s a curious observation, but when there’s a call for the second emergency hospital at the NEC in Birmingham to be called NHS Seacole, the first at the Excel conference centre in Docklands in East London being named NHS Nightingale it is declined. Mary Seacole is a Jamaican-British war hero who supported British troops as a nurse during the Crimean War. She applied to work with Florence Nightingale but was turned down.

The parallel is not missed by many, nor is the growing sense of inequality during the pandemic.

But for now, the headlines are about the shock of the rapidly increasing presence of the virus. Seventeen American states are reporting at least a thousand cases. It’s a widespread struggle to bring about the most basic of contingencies such as urgently issuing guidelines to citizens and doing whatever is necessary to manage a dearth of equipment in clinics and hospitals.

The New York City area may suffer a worse outbreak than Wuhan or Lombardy. It is less successful in flattening the curve to the same extent that either of those other areas and no one is clear about where it will end up. Other American cities appear to be on the same path.

An early lack of screening has allowed the coronavirus outbreak to spread largely undetected for weeks. Technical flaws, regulatory hurdles, and a lack of organised leadership would cost the US a month of testing that could have slowed the virus.

Dr Anthony Fauci is a veteran of disease control, having been director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and a key figure in the Trump administration’s White House Coronavirus Task Force, can see both the alarming situation and the need for an emergency response. He told members of Congress that the early inability to test was “a failing” of the administration’s response to the deadly outbreak.

But American politics is so tribal he’s become a target of claims that he is mobilising to undermine the president.

President Trump, on the other hand, finds himself substantial pressure from state officials to do more to quell the crisis. In response he makes concessions by extending Federal guidelines for social distancing to remain in place until April 30th, backing away from his plan to end them by Easter on April 12th.

He also considered imposing a quarantine on the New York area but said he would issue a travel advisory instead.

On Friday, the president finally signed a $2 trillion economic relief plan to offer assistance to tens of millions of American households affected by the pandemic. But much of the money promised in the stimulus package still weeks away, so where the US economy is heading will rest largely on how many payments go unmade, which bills are put ahead of others and the terms on which they are settled. Millions of Americans have lost their jobs in recent weeks, an economic catastrophe many are struggling to absorb. The layoffs and furloughs across the country happened abruptly and in many cases pitilessly, overturning lives in an instant.

Many turn back to the land. There are feed stores reporting they’re selling out of baby chicks almost as fast as they can get new ones in. There’s a similar run on seeds, even from those who have no previous gardening experience, and You Tube videos on such things as how to build a raised bed have a rapid increase in hits.

Seeds must.

Meanwhile, the presidential race continues,

But online only.

And with a range of issues that no-one could have foreseen when the New Year came in.

An infected, self-isolated Boris Johnson starts to take things more seriously. He realises that this is much more than a bad bug that can be blagged away. Out of control, this virus could result in doctors choosing who we have to save and who we have to ‘let go.’ It creates profound ethical choices and fears, exposing with savage brutality who we really value in society.

He writes a letter to the nation warning that the worst is yet to come and he will ‘go further’ than existing lockdown measures if needed.

While communities secretary Robert Jenrick says millions of pieces of personal protective equipment (PPE) has been sent to NHS trusts across the UK.

At last.

It should have been stockpiled at the outset.

750,000 volunteers respond to the ‘biggest call-out since the Second World War.’

The World’s oldest man is from Hampshire, and having turned 112 has had to cancel his birthday party.

The coronavirus doesn’t play fair.

It just does what it does.

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